Sunday, January 23, 2011

Yes















"It was the man who got me," the immigration court guard commented, "the way he was crying..." The other guard looked at her, shaking her head. "His little daughter just stared straight ahead..."

I watched the young man with blood running down his face speaking breathlessly to the reporters on my '82 Zenith. "They are beating us!" he gasped in stammering English. The wonderland of an exposed wire city that I loved so much a few short weeks ago was in flames. "They are trying to kill us!" he said, eyes wild and nearly interrupted by blood. "Will you continue protesting?" the reporter asked. "YES" he answered, without a pause.

"They can't send that kid back to Mexico" the lawyer in the cheap looking suit complained to the guards. "He'd be killed on sight".

"I am not comfortable with our conversation a couple of weeks ago" I finally said to one of my fellow teachers. "What conversation?" she asked. "You know, the one where you called me inconsistent in front of thirty-two students. I felt like you were calling me out. I respect your opinion, but I would prefer you didn't criticize me in front of the kids" I answered. "I would do it again," she responded "you're being hypersensitive".

Every time I walk through the gate of the Stewart Detention Center I am reminded of a concentration camp I visited in the Czech Republic. I am not trying to make a Nazi analogy. I am speaking pure aesthetics. I look up at the arch over my head and look for the "Work will set you free" sign that is somehow missing.

"Mexico" and "Honduras" were carved into the benches. All over the benches. Alejandro looked small, yet stout and strong. After watching the judge berate the previous defendant, it was now Alejandro's turn. My heart was beating out of my chest. I glanced at Michelle, her eyes were squeezed shut and she had her hand up to her mouth. I knew she was praying. I wondered if she could hear what was going on and if her thoughts were strong enough to make it all stop and set this kid free.

Sometimes, in moments of adversity, I dance in these weird soft shoes I wear to work. They fit my feet really tight and they make me feel like I am barefoot. I normally just do my dances in my classroom, but sometimes, I jump down the stairs and out of the exit in the back of the building. I really don't feel so optimistic about anything, but I still just jump into the air like a ballerina and fly.

Alejandro's lawyer's hold music filled the room through the speaker phone on the judge's desk. It was embarrassing at first and then weirdly calming and other worldly. We were all just waiting for something to happen.

"I am granting you voluntary departure and will not consider asylum" the judge stated defiantly. "And bond?" the lawyer asked through the speaker. "Bond denied" the judge answered. Alejandro's head snapped backwards and his eyes toward the sky. "And ladies" she added, staring me right in the eyes. I forced myself not to cry and stared back at the black robed cunt in front of me. "Thank you for taking your time to come here. But I am not putting him back on the streets".

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dos son tres

"Papí, I wanna cut through that glass. Cut through that glass and kiss you and hug you. Mamí, why don't you just kick through that glass, kick it in, Mamí, kick it in..." the child continued to prattle, as she spoke to her father on a telephone while looking at him through glass.

"You're not being consistent!" the teacher suddenly exclaimed, in front of thirty-two five year-olds. "Change that sad face to a smiley face on his chart!". "Okay" I answered, staring at the sixteen kids that were waiting for their class to start and had already lost five minutes. "Change it! I don't want to tell you what to do, I know I shouldn't tell you what to do in your class!". I stared back at her in silent agreement. "Trust me! It's how their minds work!" she shrilled, back to her original diatribe. "You're life will be a lot easier!" she added, making it sound almost like a threat. I handed her bullshit chart back to her and herded the next group in that had just watched me get publicly humiliated.

"You think I'll run, not walk to you" I sang in my car, "why would I want to talk to you?". I had been crying again. "I want you crawling back to me, down on your knees, yeah..."

"What is going on? I can tell you're done. I could tell by your face yesterday that you were done" the most regal member of our teaching staff asked me yesterday. "I have never felt like I was doing such a good job and getting so much disrespect all at the same time in my entire teaching career" I answered. And started to cry. "I feel like people are rubbing their hands together and hoping that I will fail. And I don't know why".

I thought of the upcoming contract season, the part where you sign your life away for next year. "You think you can leave the past behind. You must be out of your mind...." I continued singing as I drove down the highway to meet up with the beautiful Keen, my former student that still needs a little assistance now and then. I remember the day years ago when we ran out of the high school where I taught and she attended, minutes after the buses left, in search of housing for her. The same morning, my principal had asked me if I even "liked kids". No, not really. I'll just bend over fucking backwards for them. Keen always makes me feel good. She reminds me that I am doing the right thing, even if no one else knows it.

"This is Hilary, our Spanish teacher!" the parent leader stated to her guest. "We should have more that one Spanish teacher in a school our size, but Hilary does it all. We have had to make decisions about how to spend our budget and we decided to spend it elsewhere". I agree, it was honest. "But I'm sure real soon they'll just go ahead and cancel foreign language in all elementary schools" she added with a smile. Huh? "I don't agree with you" I said, thinking about the "ghetto" district my school had separated from and the one they compete with, which both have Spanish everyday for elementary students. "I think people are starting to understand the value of language learning". She glanced at her guest. "My husband and I both took Spanish for four years in high school. Can't remember a word of it. Come on, I'll show you the rest of the school!". I was curious if maybe she would moon me on the way out.

Alejandro tapped on the glass, pointing, motioning. What? Oh, my T-shirt? What is the T-shirt under my sweatshirt? MEXICO. That's right, Mexico. World Cup. When my life was starting to make sense. I watched him walk away and wondered how he could still be holding up in that deportation jail after all of these months. He's stronger than I am.

I sat at the car wash, finally paying someone to clean all the desert sand and dust from my post-Tijuana/Arizona vehicle. Yeah, I know it's been six months. Don't remind me. "Two torched selves, one lives in Egypt" the rolling commentary on CNN howled. Yeah, no big deal. Folks "torching" themselves. Folks burning themselves alive because they believe in something. No big fucking deal.

"Había una vez, y dos son tres en Puerto Rico" I read aloud to the transfixed first graders, feeling my eyes well up again. Dos son tres everywhere. The numbers don't add up and nothing makes any kind of sense at all.


*Lyrics, The Magentic Fields, You Must Be Out of Your Mind

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stuck in the Middle with You

"It's gonna be an hour or two" the guard called as we filled out the request form to see Alejandro.

An hour or two. We had deliberately left early in an attempt to make the two hour drive to the detention center, visit Alejandro and make it back before the predicted snow storm hit Atlanta.

An hour or two.

There weren't any more chairs left and people were sitting on the floor. "I've been here since eleven" some girl informed me as the clock hit two o'clock. "They've let one group of visitors go back in the last three hours".

The first hour passed and then the second. There is nothing to do in the waiting room. We watched as a guard looked for unlocked visitors' cars so that he could search them. The guards chose not to use all of the visitation rooms available to them, extending the wait. People started making chit chat. "¿De dónde son?" an abuela type asked. "Atlanta" I answered, assuming our drive was the longest. "¿Y Ustedes?", "Hilton Head". In the end, we found out that we had the shortest drive, as the sun set on hotel-less, restaurant-less Lumpkin, Georgia and the winter storm rushed in.

I knew we should have left. They told us all week that a storm was coming. An hour or two wait was obviously not panning out. But we drove over two hours to get there and had already waited hours. Surely we would be in the next visitation group. We had to guess, as we weren't getting any information from the guards.

We entered the visitation area nearly four hours after we arrived and waited in front of the glass for nearly fifteen additional minutes before they brought the detainees in. Finally they arrived, filing through the door in a line. A young man next to Alejandro took one look at his visitor and his face crumbled as he burst into tears. "What happened in Arizona?" Alejandro asked us, "All I heard was Republicans, massacre and Arizona".

The beginning of the drive home was okay. I drove fast, hoping to beat the storm though it was supposed to be hitting Atlanta within a half an hour and Lumpkin even before that. It was already dark.

And then the snow began.

The road was slick and we were in the middle of nowhere. The snow and ice were accumulating. I was driving twenty miles an hour. I slowly made my way north, wondering how many hours it would take us at that rate. Cars were spinning out. Suddenly my car started sliding and I panicked. I got it to stop moving, but sat in the middle of the cars trying to figure out what to do. Every time I took my foot of the brake my car started to slide. I sat there for a few minutes, then slowly started driving again. My windshield wipers clogged with chunks of ice and both my rear and front windows became completely obscured. I was afraid to get out of the car. Cars were sliding past us and my own car had been out of control. The side of the highway was piled high with snowdrifts that were stopping people from hitting the cement dividing wall when they spun out. I drove slowly with my window open, grabbing my windshield wipers as they passed and ripping the ice from them. And then all traffic stopped.

We skipped through the AM stations trying to figure out what had completely blocked one of Atlanta's major highways. Had they closed the road and just left us out there? Hundreds of cars spread in front and behind us. A few emergency vehicles passed. We were forty miles south of Atlanta. We sat and waited.

"Jared Loughner was a liberal!" the conservative commentator chanted on the radio. "He was crazy! Sarah Palin's rhetoric had nothing to do with it! We have never encouraged violence! Barak HUSSEIN Obama uses violent rhetoric! America's prisons are full of LIBERALS that voted for Barak HUSSEIN Obama!" The commentator continued explaining the peaceful and cooperative right wing for nearly fifteen minutes. "Let's take a caller!" he finally announced. A southern woman's voice filled the line. "He shoulda got Pelosi! He got the wrong one!" she howled, before being cut off. The commentator spent the next half an hour reiterating that neither the Tea Party or any conservative had ever espoused violence and did not take any more call-ins.

The snow was piling up and the ice was getting thicker and we weren't moving. A series of gunshots went off beside the highway. No one was coming to our aid and no one was mentioning what the hell was going on. We sat in a weird wintery twilight, surrounded by hundreds of people as the snow rose around us. A plane thundered through snow and sleet onto one of the runways at the airport. Emergency lights flashed to tell it where to go. "This isn't going to end," I told Michelle "we are going to see the sun come up here".

Five hours later, we saw the two jackknifed tractor trailers and a series of cabs blocking the highway as it snaked over an overpass. We also saw an emergency vehicle. "Hey bro!" he called over a loud speaker at one of the cabs "I'm gonna bump you!". The oblivious African driver got in the car and stared forward as the HERO truck pushed him out of the way. People were getting out of their cars. "They're putting sand down" a passing walker told me. We were getting closer. "Keep driving, don't stop!" a man yelled at me as I slid over the snow and sand between the two trucks and over the icy overpass.

And then we were alone. We looked back over the sea of red lights and entered the snow capped city. We were the only car on the road as we slid past the stadium and down toward the park. It was a beautiful, deserted, ice covered ghost town.

We abandoned the car down the hill from my house and wandered through the snow at two o'clock in the morning, having survived the great Southern snowstorm.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Hassle

My mouth fell open in surprise and I started giggling, all while covering my face with my hands. "You can rrride the sphinkus!" the rogue antiquities cop said with glee, after spiriting us behind some three thousand year old ruins in an ancient temple in Luxor. We did some things we really probably shouldn't have and baksheeshed the antiquities cops for their behind the scenes tour. As I walked away, I saw a fist fight breaking out over the money.

There really is a whole market for folks that are underpaid and guarding precious sites. For five bucks, you can sit on Hemingway's couch in his place outside of Havana. You don't have to say anything, they'll come to you. Screw those ropes and things, you can look through his books, check out the liquor cabinet, even go in the bathroom. You could probably even haggle a little on that five bucks, but that would make you kind of an asshole.

"Are you for Bush or Obama?" we were asked for the millionth time. "Obama. Obama all the way. Bush is a bad man", "Do you believe the bad things that he said about us?", "No, of course not. He's a bad man. A very bad man". "Hello!" the little girl called in English as we climbed up out of the Nile ferry and on to the eastern bank. "Obama" another whispered to me, eyes glowing.

"Man dress, coming up fast, to your right, brace" we whispered to each other as we roamed around Luxor after sleeping on the train from Cairo. "The man dresses are off the chain by the ferry dock" my sister muttered, after hunting down an ATM. They call this "the hassle". They mean the hawking, the pestering. On a scale of one to ten, India being ten and the U.S. being zero, I would give Egypt a seven. And the man dresses were the champs.

Men lined the streets on Friday and prayer rugs covered the sidewalks. I've visited a few Muslim countries, but haven't seen folks quite so devout. And then the church blew up and the cops filled the streets and I though of Tijuana and still didn't want to go home.

There was some sort of sphinx-like, or excuse me, sphinkus-like ruin facing the sun. But the days were moving quickly and I could visibly see the sun rising and setting over and over again across the sphinx face, as if in fast motion. Dark, light, brighter, setting, dark, over and over again. A science teacher from one of the schools I left was walking around. I woke up, startled and disturbed.

The Western couple came straight to the front of the line, with multiple porters carrying approximately seven bags. They were loud, whining. The man pulled out a stack of bills and spread them out like playing cards and began handing individual bills to his porters. The porter in front of me, who wasn't carrying a single one of their bags, saw the money and jumped over to get in line. I would normally hate something like this. Pretending you did something and asking for money. It was the eyes that got me. When the money appeared his eyes widened and pounced and his body followed, like an animal seeking prey. That's poverty. Not pretty or romantic, just desperate. As I passed through security, I saw the shoving and fighting starting over the money.

I was only five minutes late. Shit, it was Monday morning, I had flown in late Sunday and was still jetlagged. I don't know how they managed to be totally in a meeting on a planning day at that hour. My mind was still full of love and excitement for Egypt and I really didn't even care, just set my stuff down and sat in the back.

By Tuesday morning, I was already angry and my stomach churned the minute I opened my eyes to go to work.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Holiest of Holiest

The snow was falling on Christmas, a rarity in Atlanta. We raced toward the airport and boarded a plane to Cairo.

"We've stopped boarding. There's a security issue" the flight attendant in New York announced, shortly before all two hundred of us were commanded by the pilot to take our stuff and get off and go through security again because a suspicious item had been found on the plane. What, an extra half once of hand sanitizer, or box cutters? We got off the ground at 12:30 AM, just hours before the airport was closed because of another snow storm.

The sun rose about an hour and a half into the flight and we remained in broad daylight for about nine hours. At 11:00 AM Eastern, the sun set again. All the while, the flight progress indicator kept displaying which direction to Mecca. We were headed right for it.

As I stepped out onto the rolling staircase that someone had pushed up to the plane in Cairo, the first thing I heard was a call to prayer. I looked to my right and saw a very blingy minarette, decked out in blue Christmas lights.

"Taxi! You need taxi?" we were asked by probably our third shady young Egyptian guy while we raped the airport's ATM. "No. That's our guy" my sister indicated, pointing to the man throwing down on his prayer rug in the middle of the airport floor.

I lay awake in the night. I had woken up, feeling rested and relaxed, then realized that I had slept a whole two hours and that it was 2:30 AM in Egypt. I stared out of the window at the bright, blingy purple lighted mosque across the late night haze and twinkling lights of Cairo. It was beautiful. It started to sing. Low at first and then other mosques started singing back at it. By five AM, they reached a shrill crescendo, joined together in the night as they howled across an expansive sleeping city. I stared out of the window, feeling like I was the only person watching the singing buildings as they put on the show of a lifetime in the middle of the night.

I remember my first Muslim street party. I was in India in the middle of the spring and had no idea what was going on when the junky black speakers attached to the telephone pole outside of my hostel window began screeching in the middle of the night and continued for hours. I found it jarring and nerve wracking. These Egypt mosques were suaver, less crackly.

Cairo is a city among cities. Boasting 20 million strong, it sprawls in all directions. A haze hangs over the city, a mix of desert sand dust and wildly unregulated auto emissions that stain both the crumbling colonial buildings and the abundant laundry hanging from them black. Open, strangely rigged wires hang over the streets and out of walls and garbage lays in places it really ought not. Shanties line the rooftops and your snot turns black in matter of hours.

It was beautiful in every way.